The Songhua River

One of the few details of primary school history that sticks in my brain – well, apart from Elizabethans using white lead on their faces and only bathing once a year – is the great fairs that were held on the Thames during the Little Ice Age.

The river used to freeze so hard that folk lit bonfires on it, even roasted oxen.

And it didn’t melt!

Rivers don’t freeze in England. Ponds freeze. Streams freeze. Big, big rivers don’t.

And, yes, even after crossing a glacier in the high Himalayas, even after walking over great mountains of moraine, supported by ice that’s hard as rock, there is still something magical, almost unimaginable to me, about a frozen river.

But then there’s something magical about ice. Unlike most other liquids, water expands when it freezes, so ice floats on water, meaning rivers freeze from top to bottom, and melt into liquid life when the sunshine comes.

Workmen hacking away black ice from the pavement in Harbin.

In Harbin, of course, we are far, far up in northern China, deep in Manchuria, in the heart of the bulge encircled by Russia, Mongolia and North Korea, so ice is not in short supply.

The climate is, quite literally, Siberian. Temperatures routinely drop below -30°C-22°F) in the winter, a dry, bright, tundra cold, with crisp sparkling sun and a sharpness to it that bites at noses, ears, fingers — even eyes! — at least until the human body works its magic of acclimatisation.

There is black ice on the pavements, frozen so hard that workmen have to hack away with axes, hammers, even chisels, and you can spot an out-of-town Chinese from a Harbiner by the way they slip and fall.

It would be easy, I think, to be miserable in this climate. But our apartment is toasty, toasty warm.

I’ve found, completed and billed enough jobs to ensure we’re financially solid next month, or at least can afford to go skiing next month and rebuild funds plus pay my stamps once the ski season ends, but I’m still waiting for people to pay me (what with being a freelance writer and all).

So, insanely, despite being in the home of the biggest ice festival on earth, the ice sculptures that I’ve wanted to see ever since I first read about them, we have to start our winter explorations on the Songhua River.

Zac ascending the stairs to an ice slide on the Songhua River, Harbin.

And it’s wonderful.

The river bank is alive. There are stalls selling candied hawthorns, candied strawberries, candied pineapple, hats, gloves and mittens, a few touts pushing horse and carriage rides or dog sled rides on the river, and ice slide after ice slide after ice slide, decked with lanterns and glistening in the warm afternoon light.

Beyond the ice slides? A vast expanse of snow-encrusted ice, a kilometer wide or so, the Songhua River. Surreally, there’s a cable car, tick-ticking its way across the distance. The train bridge, too, seems utterly redundant now it’s running across what might as well be tundra.

And, oh my god, the place is a giant winter playground!

“ICE SLIDES!” yells the boy, legging it to the nearest one.

“Wait!” I say. “You know we don’t have much money at the moment. You’re going to need to choose one slide and one activity.”

Ice "hovercraft" on the Songhua River, Harbin.

Zac hems and haws. There are slides you can descend in tubes. Slides you ride on mats. Slides you ride just in your cosy down jacket and ice-proof pants. Big slides, wide slides, narrow slides, bumpy slides, snow slides, ice slides…

He plumps for the biggest ice slide, carefully selects an inner tube, and descends, at pace, amid a crowd of howling, whooping Chinese, from the bank onto the frozen river.

He pronounces it good. Me? I’m just gobsmacked — yes, still gobsmacked — that something as transient as ice can support so many people! So many vehicles!

Playing tuo-luo, ice spinning tops, on the Songhua River.

After ice skating in Beijing, I know the Chinese do ice play well, but Harbiners take it to a whole new level.

There’s tuo-luo, a game with a whipcord and a metal spinning top, which seems bewilderingly popular with adults and children alike.

There is skating, snowmobiles, ice bikes, ice skating chairs that you push along with pointed poles, luridly coloured ice “hovercraft”, a tobogganing hill, a quadbike track – yes, a quadbike track — and…


Yes, tanks.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Zac is male. (Further, quadbikes are already part of his repertoire, a fact of which I am rather glad as there are no helmets in evidence and the track is solid ice.)

Zac crashes his tank on the frozen Songhua River, Harbin.

They are little tanks, child-size tanks, complete with gun turret and two large steering levers, with which to navigate the tight little maze with its walls of compacted snow.

And he’s off, into the setting sun.

He takes the first corner. Fails. Mounts the wall, and almost flips his tank over.

I’d always thought Zac had his father’s driving skills, but it appears he’s inherited mine.

The guys right the tank, and show him how to drive it, and then he’s off and running, sedately cruising, a big broad grin on his face, happy as only a boy driving a tank on a frozen river can be (here’s his take).

Thank god, I think. Harbin’s going to work out OK.

14 Responses

  1. Sounds fantastic. My most exciting ‘ice’ moment was in Copenhagen last winter when the sea froze. The kids and I took a short, trepidatious walk out. For three Aussies, it was incredibly surreal.

  2. Joanna says:

    Reminds me so much of growing up near the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, which froze every winter and became the world’s longest skating rink and in Feb. a winter wonderland with ice sculptures, hot chocolate etc. I would even ice skate for my commute to university there along the canal (which is like a river). Really used to frozen rivers coming from Canada.

    • Theodora says:

      Oh, what a wonderful way to get to work! How brilliant! I’m not used to them at all, as you can tell… I’ve been in Finland in the winter, but that’s the only really cold place I’ve been in winter before now. When you’re living in England, you really, really don’t want to go cold places in the winter, unless it’s for skiing, in which case there are, obviously, no rivers….

  3. Kelly says:

    I second those Rideau Canal memories, it was always a trip with your class at School and so much fun, especially chomping on beaver tails (like naan bread dusted in cinnamon & sugar). Not just students but many politicians & civil servants skate to work as the government offices line the Canal. Hockey played on a frozen river/pond is a common Canadian activity for young and old alike.

    • Theodora says:

      All you bloody Canadians are making me want to go to Canada now 🙁

      Hear you also have amazing skiing…

  4. Honestly, I really enjoy your love affair with ice, even after having escaped from Canada where I nearly died on a glacier, nearly froze waiting for a streetcar slightly drunk, and got stranded on snowbanks driving when I still lived on a farm. I thawed reading anything exotic and tropical, always planning my escape.
    Now I enjoy your writing the same way I once enjoyed Dostoevsky’s soulful characters as opposed to placid bodies wasting away on hot beaches.
    Now I understand your choice.

    • Theodora says:

      It’s not a choice I’d have made three years ago, coming from the UK, believe you me! And the primary reason for Harbin or this region was for Zac to get well-accented Chinese — but, now, I’m finding it really, really fascinating.

      What’s amazing is that the human body adapts. When we were in Egypt in the summer, 35 felt cool; in Asia, 20 felt positively chilly; in Harbin in the winter -10 can feel warm.

  5. Nonplussed says:

    Life is not terribly magical at the moment so thank you for bringing a few moments of vicarious wonder and excitement into one’s humdrum life. This was lovely.

    • Theodora says:

      Thank you! You will love the ice sculpture pictures when I get them up. That’s also a truly, truly magical moment. Sunrise over Gokyo Ri type magical.

  6. Ainlay says:

    Not even the lure of driving tanks on frozen rivers could make me endure -22F weather. I hate the cold! I bet that 6th floor walk up makes you very organized before you leave in the morning since you don’t want to just race back up for that wallet you forgot!

    • Theodora says:

      Oh Jesus, yes. -30, in fact, makes you organised. Although it’s a lot warmer than that now. Going out is rather like it used to be when Zac was a newborn. A whole rigmarole of hats, gloves, final checks… So different from hot climates.

  7. Charli says:

    There’s something very alluring about a frozen wonderland. However one with tanks, ice slides and frozen staircases, well, that’s just the icing on the cake!